How to Start a Thriving Drive-Thru Coffee Shop

Larry Alton

Larry Alton

Larry Alton

13 min. read

Updated November 13, 2023

Have you opened up a drive-thru coffee shop? Are you thinking about opening one? Drive-thru coffee seems like an automatic cash machine—everyone loves fast, convenient coffee, right?

While owning a drive-thru coffee shop can be profitable, there are some lesser-known secrets to creating a thriving coffee business. Being moderately successful is okay if you want to run your business for the rest of your life, but if you want to retire, you’re going to need some power tips—especially if you’re aiming to match the legendary status of Dutch Bros. Coffee.

Whether you’re buying an existing franchise or building your shop from scratch, building a solid business plan and following these tips will launch you far ahead of the competition. For a more detailed look at the process of starting a coffee shop, check out the Bplans coffee shop and cafe business startup guide.

I’ve worked in, supervised, and managed multiple drive-thru coffee shops over the course of fifteen years. During that time, I’ve seen success bigger than Dutch Bros, where customers were served in under a minute no matter how long the line was. As a barista, I’ve completed 4-hour shifts earning over $50 in tips. As a manager, I’ve increased sales by over 100 transactions per day by making small, effortless changes. As a trainer, I’ve watched new baristas gain the skills and confidence to fly solo within a week.

I’ve seen a lot of success in those fifteen years. I’ve also seen thriving corporations franchise their locations only to watch the business fail in less than three months because the new owners eliminated the systems that were driving the success. While this wasn’t good news for the owners, it demonstrated the importance of these systems.

Failure in the coffee industry is predictable, and if you want to avoid failure, you need to know what drives success. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just your menu items, gourmet pastries, or fancy drinks that create success—it’s how you run your store, from the inside out.

1. Keep a tight control on your inventory

There’s a difference between tracking inventory and controlling inventory. Keeping track of inventory involves counting your products at regular intervals (like at the end of the month) to see what you’ve gone through so you can calculate your costs and place new orders. Controlling inventory, on the other hand, involves managing how your products are used in order to prevent waste.

One of the biggest sources of lost income for drive-thru coffee shops is from waste, and most coffee shop owners are unaware of just how much of a waste problem they have. To prove this, I ran a shift where I required every barista to dump their leftover milk into a 5-gallon bucket. By the end of the day, the bucket was almost full. It didn’t look like much on a per-drink-basis, but after serving hundreds of drinks, the waste really added up.

Waste is a problem that occurs as a cumulative effect of small sources of waste that seem insignificant until you add them all up. These sources of waste can include everything from dairy to syrups, and unfortunately, it can cost thousands of dollars each month.

Here’s a typical, real-life example of how waste can add up in an average day.

Let’s say you staff four different employees in the course of a day. Each employee can produce the following average amount of waste during the day:

  • Two or three mistake drinks that results in wasting cups, lids, straws, sleeves, sugar, syrups, sauces, whipped cream, and espresso beans.
  • A stack of cups, lids, napkins, sugar, or other supplies that fall to the floor and are thrown away.
  • A couple of dropped pastries.
  • A couple of eaten pastries.
  • Broken pastries that can’t be served.
  • Napkins that get soaked in water.
  • Straws that get syrup on them.
  • A pot of brewed coffee that had grounds in it that gets re-brewed.
  • A pot of coffee that expires and has to be dumped.
  • Two ounces or more of leftover milk in each pitcher after making 50+ drinks during each shift (100 ounces of milk is about ¾ of a gallon).
  • Remaking a drink because the customer changed their mind.
  • Remaking a drink because they forgot to brew decaf espresso.
  • Spilling a drink on the floor.
  • Knocking over a pitcher of milk.
  • A grinder that over or under-doses the espresso—for every five shots brewed, one shot worth of grounds is wasted.

These are all sources of daily waste that add up to hundreds of dollars per week. Some coffee shops waste so many cups that they may as well just throw away an entire case every few months as soon as they receive their shipment.

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Proper training is part of inventory control

Providing industry standard training for yourself and your staff will eliminate a majority of waste in your store. Training people to pour perfect portions in pitchers can reduce milk waste by three gallons or more per day. Training people how to fill the portafilters with the proper dose of espresso, regardless of what the grinder puts out, can save up to 40 shots worth of espresso per day.

Requiring employees to ring in their employee beverages and account for all pastries and drinks that are wasted for any reason forces them to become more conscious about what they’re doing, and not only drastically reduces waste but also provides you with a more accurate picture of where your waste is coming from, so you can find a way to stop it. A simple tender button labeled “mistake” that zeroes out the total and accounts for the product on the back end can do the trick.

2. Avoid serving food that needs to be prepared or heated

By leaving the combination of coffee and hot food to fast food restaurants, you’re doing yourself the biggest favor in the world. First, preparing and heating food takes time which means wait times and lines will be longer. Your goal as a drive-thru coffee shop should be to get people through as fast as possible while providing exceptional service. Unfortunately, this can’t be accomplished when hot food is part of your menu.

Food that requires utensils to eat is also going to prove problematic. Not only is it not environmentally friendly, but the moment you run out of forks—and you will—your customers will have to figure out how to eat their lunch in their car with their hands, and then they’ll be mad.

Instead of trying to be a mini restaurant, offer a small selection of pastries and dry goods you can quickly place into a bag already prepared with a napkin and a wet wipe, and just hand the bag to the customer.

3. Staff a greeter to keep people from driving away

There’s no way around it—people are going to attempt to drive through your shop when they’re late for work, or they have somewhere to be, fully expecting instant service. If you take too long to serve them, they’re going to get mad. Some will leave the line if there’s nobody behind them, but for those who get sandwiched in the middle of a few cars, there’s nowhere to turn.

Sometimes people will drive away, even when they’re the second person in line, if their perception is that things are taking too long. However, there is a way to keep people in line and it’s all about customer service.

The way you keep people in line, especially during the morning rush, is to have someone positioned as a dedicated “greeter.” This person stands outside and greets the cars in line, taking orders and passing them on to the people inside making the drinks. This accomplishes two important things. One, it gives the people inside a head start on making drinks, speeding up the line. Two, it makes the people in line feel like they’re already taken care of, decreasing the perception of their wait time. When they know their drink is being worked on, it gives them more incentive to stay in line.

If you’re in the process of hiring new or additional employees to fill this role, make sure to ask them these important questions first before you make your new hire.

4. Have a dedicated barista in addition to window staff

Many drive-thru cafes only staff one person in the afternoon, and sometimes only two people in the morning. Since there are usually two windows, this can create a problem that slows down the speed of service and creates a struggle for the staff. When the person at the window also has to make the drink, or they have to handle both windows and prepare the drink, you’re losing most of your leverage for a quick transaction.

In the late 1990s, a drive-thru coffee chain called Caffino blasted the Bay Area in California with an unrivaled service guarantee of coffee in 60 seconds or less—and the baristas not only met this goal but exceeded it sometimes with transactions lasting just long enough for the car to drive through, toss in a $5 bill and grab their drink. That’s because they had a dedicated barista, dedicated window people, and a dedicated greeter; the drinks were often made before the car pulled up to the window.

5. Invest in training baristas properly

The best training you can possibly provide for your staff is to schedule dedicated training shifts where both you and your new hire are training for the whole day, and not available to help customers. In order to train someone effectively, they need your full attention without interruption. It’s a mistake to schedule yourself as an available staff member and think you can train people between customers.

Understandably, many coffee shop owners train new hires by waiting for a customer to order a drink and then asking the new hire to make it, thinking that repetition alone over a period of time will commit the recipes to memory. There is an easier way.

The real reason coffee shop owners schedule themselves (or their trainers) to work the floor while they train is because they’re trying to save money on labor. As a trainer, I’ve had many conversations with franchise owners practically begging them to staff extra people so I can have dedicated time with my new hires and none of them would because they saw it as “unnecessary labor.”

If you wait for a drink to be ordered before letting them get their hands dirty, and think you can just train them on other similar drinks verbally, you’re going to end up thinking they’re just not getting it, not realizing you’re actually making it harder for them. If you have employees who have a hard time remembering recipes, change the way you train them and you’ll cut training time in half.

It costs money to train effectively, but it’s worth it.

Efficient training turns out confident baristas in less than a week

When you put your trainee in front of an espresso machine and systematically train them to make drinks that build off of each other, you allow them to get in the flow, continue the momentum, and remember recipes easily.

For example, you’d want to have your trainee start with only hot drinks and make the following drinks in the same size, in this order: a doppio espresso, an espresso macchiato, a latte, a vanilla latte, and finally a mocha. Then repeat this for the next size. Then go to cold drinks. This is the best way to train because you’re building their skills in grinding, dosing, tamping, and extracting—building on the complexity of the recipe slowly.

You’d save the cappuccino for last because that involves steaming the milk differently and will take them out of their flow. Also, once they’re proficient at steaming milk for a latte, it will be easier for them to confidently practice steaming milk for a cappuccino.

For ten years I was the main trainer for a high volume, corporate drive-thru espresso bar, and I produced fully trained baristas with no prior coffee experience in seven days using the method outlined above. They were so well trained I could leave them alone in the store if necessary. Our hands-on training system was specifically designed to support the quick memorization of recipes through a natural, logical progression.

In that 10-year time span of training hundreds of baristas with dedicated training sessions, there were only a few people who didn’t make it through the training.

I observed that when the training protocol was broken and new hires were told to make the iced equivalent of the hot drink they just made, even though the ingredients were the same it threw them off. The cups looked different, they were located in a different section of the store, the order of adding ingredients was backward, and there was an extra step to add ice. When the training protocol was followed, they were able to move between hot and cold drinks with minimal error. I knew our training system was effective, but I didn’t realize how effective it was until my location was franchised.

When the corporation franchised my location, the owners decided to train new hires much differently. Before a new hire was allowed to enter the store, touch an espresso machine or any other equipment, they had to pass a verbal recipe test while standing out in the parking lot. They were given a week to memorize recipes for every espresso beverage printed in a packet.

With no prior coffee experience, they had to memorize over 20 drinks in five sizes with recipes that varied between hot and cold versions. Not only did they have to memorize the ingredients for each drink, but they had to memorize cup sizes, number of shots, number of flavor syrup pumps, chocolate sauce pumps, powder scoops, and more. The majority of people failed this verbal test and the franchise owners would not allow them to continue their training otherwise. They had no idea their way of training was ineffective.

How you explain drinks to new hires defines their ability to recall recipes

When you ask a new hire to memorize individual drink recipes and you ask them how to make a 16oz mocha, a 16oz latte, and a 16oz breve, they’re going search their memory for three separate drinks. I’ve watched countless new hires scratch their heads and breathe deeply with big pauses in speech while attempting to explain these three drinks after being given a packet to memorize.

When I trained new hires, I explained the three drinks differently and painted a picture for them that created a connection between all of the drinks that made it easy. I told them a 16oz latte is two shots of espresso and steamed milk, and the other two drinks are just variations. A mocha is the same drink but with chocolate added, and a breve is a latte that uses half and half instead of milk. With this explanation, the new hire only needs to memorize one recipe for a latte, and then “mocha” and “breve” become keywords for a recipe alteration—not a separate recipe.

If you’re not sure how to train your staff, you can provide state of the art training for all of your baristas through the Specialty Coffee Society of America.

You can make drive-thru coffee a profitable business

Owning a drive-thru coffee shop is a profitable business if you’re willing to put in the time and effort required to do it right from the start.

If you follow the tips outlined here, you’ll be far ahead of your competition, and you’ll not only see more profit, but also provide better service.

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Content Author: Larry Alton

Larry is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship.